Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Derivatives and the Oil Market

An interesting article in the LA Times explains the effects of derivative trading on oil prices.

There is an inherent lack of transparency in derivative trading. Over time, these derivatives spawn other derivatives which then get re-packaged and re-sold. Ultimately, no one has a true picture of what is held by who and for how much. Just look at what is happening with the losses in the housing markets.

Even the Chief Executives of some of the largest banks in the world have no idea on the extent of losses or liabilities in their income statements or balance sheets (or off-balance sheets for that matter). Isn't that a shameful inadequacy on their parts? These people are paid in the millions, yet do not have an authoritative picture on the risks and financial implications of the complex instruments that they sell.

I suspect that the derivative frenzy will affect the oil market a little differently than it did the housing market. For one, oil is a more dynamic commodity and by all indications it is getting scarcer and more expensive to retrieve. It is the dynamic nature of the oil business and the fact that oil is consumed and is exhausted, as opposed to a house that is a capital asset that can be resuscitated after a foreclosure leads this feeble mind to think that the speculative frenzy will continue until supply starts handily overtaking demand once again.

However, as OPEC and other oil producers start savvying up to using derivative trading to their advantage and in effect, wrenching that function away from middle men, they might actually start making larger bets and promote the instability for larger and larger profits.This would be the only way for countries that currently produce large quantities but whose oil wells are in decline to be able to generate larger profits. Ultimately of course, the whole thing comes crashing down. When that happens, as always, the Joe Schmo who holds the derivative instrument at the bitter end will hurt the most.

However, will the crashing of the oil derivative market lower oil prices? In the sub-prime crisis - when the housing CDOs' collapsed, house prices went down. Could the crashing of the oil derivative market trigger higher prices for oil because instability and rising oil prices go hand in hand? It that hypothesis is true, then, the derivative speculation is causing higher oil prices and a derivative market collapse will result in even higher prices. Of course, this feeble mind readily accepts that this is just a feeble minded hypotesis with many holes.

As an aside, a previously referenced Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) profiled two gentlemen who until recently held among the senior most positions in Saudi Aramco. These two gentlemen could not agree on the depletion rates and existing reserves in some of Saudi Arabia's largest oil fields. Remember, no international organizations have been given permission to make estimates either.

Unless the recent Brazilian or Kazakh or Kurdish and some other hitherto unknown oil discoveries prove substantial enough can be turned on and released into the world market within a very finite time frame, we are in for interesting times.

In the short term however, it appears like the crude price rice will hit some ceiling and then go lower - the consensus being around the $115 ballpark. Whether this level will sustain itself for several decades or if it is a momentary plateau in a relentless upward march is anybody's guess. Devising individual strategies - be in moving closer to work or buying a smaller car - to reduce our discretionary hydrocarbon footprint probably is the only hedge we have to weather this storm financially.

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